by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: ILSI (International Life Sciences Institute)

Aug 25 2023

Is WHO’s aspartame decision conflicted?

One of the most viewed articles in The Guardian last week was this one on possible conflicts of interest among WHO panelists dealing with the health effects of the artificial sweetener, aspartame.

The headline: Revealed: WHO aspartame safety panel linked to alleged Coca-Cola front group

The article refers to the release last month of two somewhat contradictory reports on the potential carcinogenicity of the artificial sweetener, aspartame, a situation I referred to in this space as crazy-making.

To review:

  • The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified aspartame as possibly carcinogenic to humans.
  • But in the same report, the WHO and FAO Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) said a daily aspartame intake of 40 mg/kg body weight was acceptable.

A  report from US Right to Know poses a possible explanation: “Did a Coca-Cola front group sway a WHO review of aspartame?

One possible answer: at least six out of 13 JECFA panel members have ties to ILSI, a longtime Coca-Cola front group. [In addition] Both the chair and vice chair of the JECFA panel have ties to ILSI.

I’ve written repeatedly about ILSI actions on behalf of the food industry, most recently about how it tracked responses to my book Unsavory Truth (in which I discuss the organization as a front group).

Just because committee members have affiliations with an industry front group does not mean they cannot be objective about the science of aspartame, and I have certainly heard arguments that anyone who has any stature in nutrition cannot avoid such ties (full disclosure: in the late 1980s, ILSI attempted—unsuccessfully, no surprise—to recruit me for a job).

But it is striking that 8 of 13 members had such an affiliation, a (perhaps) coincidence that got The Guardian’s attention.

At the very least, the membership gives the appearance of a conflict of interest, which is one reason why such things matter.

Mar 30 2022

ILSI by any other name…

I received a press release announcing a June conference to be held by the Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences.

I had never heard of it.  It says it “is a non-profit organization that catalyzes science for the benefit of public health” and that it “drives, funds, and leads actionable research and elevates food safety and nutritional sciences—all with the ultimate goal of advancing public health.”

That seemed pleasant, if vague, but I was still puzzled.  Nothing on the Institute’s website helped.

This took some digging, but I soon found a news release announcing its formation in February 2021: Leading Scientists Launch Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences to Promote Collaborative Research:

Today marks the establishment of the Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences (IAFNS), a 501(c)(3) organization focused on catalyzing science for the benefit of public health.

Previously known as the International Life Sciences Institute, North America, IAFNS is building on a proud heritage with a focus on actionable science that promotes nutrition, food safety and public health.

Aha!  ILSI,  The classic industry front group.

ILSI, you may recall, was formed by Coca-Cola.

Within the last few years, lots of articles have appeared describing its lobbying efforts on behalf of the food industry.  Some of these were so blatant that Mars withdrew from in in 2018 and Coca-Cola withdrew in 2021.

I’ve written about ILSI often over the years.  See, for example, this post about IlSI’s effort in China.  Or see this article about scientific integrity (or the lack thereof).

Could all the bad press have anything to do with the name change?

A leopard cannot change its spots, alas.

Oct 3 2019

The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI): true colors revealed

The furor over the “don’t-worry-about-meat” papers published earlier this week (see my post) did not have much to say about the lead author’s previous association with the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), disclosed in a “you don’t need to worry about sugar” review from the same journal in 2016: “This project was funded by the Technical Committee on Dietary Carbohydrates of ILSI North America.”  The meat papers did not mention the previous connection to ILSI, even though it occurred within the past three years.  They should have.

ILSI is a classic food-industry front group, one that tries to stay under the radar but is not succeeding very well lately.

The New York Times titled its recent ILSI investigation: A Shadowy Industry Group Shapes Food Policy Around the World.

This reminded me of what I wrote about ILSI in my book Unsavory Truth (2018).  When I was working on the last chapters of the book, I realized that something about ILSI’s role turned up in practically every chapter.  Here, I refer to a study funded by ILSI.

The front-group funder was the North American branch of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), an organization that turns up often in this book. ILSI describes itself as an independent scientific think tank, but it was created and is largely funded by the food industry. This makes it, by definition, a front group.

But you might not realize this from reading the study authors’ disclosure statement, which describes ILSI as “a public, nonprofit scientific foundation that provides . . . a neutral forum for government, academic, and industry scientists to discuss and resolve scientific issues of common concern for the well-being of the general public” (1).

ILSI keeps a relatively low public profile but seems never to miss an opportunity to defend the interests of its four hundred or so corporate sponsors. Its 2016 annual report takes four pages and fifteen columns to list industry supporters of its national and international branches; these contribute two-thirds of this group’s nearly $18 million in annual revenues (the rest comes from government or private grants or contributions). ILSI’s board of trustees is about half industry and half academia, all unpaid volunteers.

Critics describe ILSI as a “two-level” organization. On the surface, it engages in legitimate scientific activities. But deep down, it provides funders with “global lobbying services . . . structured in a way which ensures that the funding corporations have majority membership in all its major decision-making committees.” (2).

(1) Besley JC, McCright AM, Zahry NR, et al.  Perceived conflict of interest in health science partnerships. PLoS One. 2017;12(4):e0175643.  McComas KA.  Session 5: Nutrition communication. The role of trust in health communication and the effect of conflicts of interest among scientists.  Proc Nutr Soc. 2008;67(4):428-36.

(2) Miller D, Harkins C. Corporate strategy and corporate capture: food and alcohol industry and lobbying and public health. Crit Soc Policy. 2010;30:564-89.

I have written about ILSI in previous blog posts:

Others have also written about this organization:

It’s about time ILSI’s practices are being exposed.